Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles looking at the Utes' move to the Pac-12 Conference. You can also read the first and the second parts of the series.

SALT LAKE CITY — Rich Manning was on a recruiting trip in Kansas last June when he heard the news that Utah was joining the Pac-10 Conference.

And what was the Utah soccer coach's initial reaction?

"Wow!"

Not wow as in "what are we getting ourselves into?" Rather, as Manning put it, "Wow, it really happened. What a great opportunity for our program."

If you ask Utah athletics director Chris Hill who the most positive coach in his department is, there's a good chance Manning would top the list. Manning doesn't seem the least bit anxious about his team competing this fall in the Pac-12, which he calls "No. 1 or 1A" along with the ACC as the best soccer conference in the country.

"My first reaction was, 'Now the system can work for us."' Manning said. "We don't have to tilt at windmills any more."

Manning was referring to things like scheduling and trying to improve his club's RPI to keep up with the more prominent conferences. After competing with an overall winning record against Pac-10 schools from 1995 to 2007, the Utes have lost eight games in a row against the Pac-10 over the past three seasons.

"It felt like in our sport, the ship was sailing away and the gap was widening," he said. "In the last five years it's become reality with the gaps between the haves and the have-nots trickling down to our sport. Financially we have had a hard time keeping up."

As daunting as it is for many of Utah's athletic teams, stepping up to play in one of the nation's premier conferences, in which most schools compete in warm-weather locations, Manning sees it as a challenge that his team can rise to.

"I don't think the players or the staff have any fear," he said. "The only thing that's an unknown is playing those teams twice on a weekend for consecutive weekends."

The Utes will play 11 league games with two games most weekends, usually on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.

So far, Manning and the Utes haven't seen a lot of changes in recruiting success because of their new Pac-12 status.

Like most sports, soccer recruiting is starting earlier and earlier with most players committed by the time they're juniors. So Utah's 2011 class was already set when the June 2010 announcement was made.

However, the Utes did get an outstanding goalie out of Colorado, which Manning says is a result of the Utes' admission to the Pac-12.

Molly Poletto had been recruited by several major colleges, but when her coach left for another job, she reconsidered and called Manning.

"That was the first indicator that something was different," said Manning, who will welcome Poletto to his program this fall.

He said there was some initial confusion among recruits and their families about Utah's move to the Pac-12. "Some kids and parents would say, "Is that for all sports or just football?"

However, Manning is seeing a difference as he recruits the younger players for future seasons, both out of state and in Utah, where the Utes must compete with BYU for top talent.

"Now it's very noticeable," Manning said. "California kids have grown up with the Pac-10 and there's a lot of 'That's going to be awesome.' There's no question it's starting, both locally and nationally. We're starting to see interest level that will translate into kids coming here."

After suffering through the worst season in Manning's nine-year tenure in which five to nine starters were out with injuries much of the season, the Utes return most of their top players this year, including forward and second-leading scorer Erin Dalley and starting goalkeeper Hannah Turpen.

Both players are excited to be playing in the Pac-12.

"This is an awesome opportunity, so I think our whole team is extremely excited for this challenge," said Turpen, a native Californian. "I think we're ready and really focused. I definitely feel it will help our recruiting. It's nothing but good for our school and our program."

"There's a lot of great teams in the Pac-12 and I'm really excited for it," said Dalley, who prepped at Viewmont High. "It's going to be a great opportunity for us. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Perhaps no one is looking forward to the challenge more than Manning, who was part of national championship teams when he coached at Santa Clara.

"I love it — I have great confidence that we're going to do well," Manning said. "... If you look at the history of our program and the talent we have and the great talent that is interested in our program, I have no question we'll do well. I'm salivating at this opportunity."

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Utah soccer at a glance

Advantage: The Utes are used to playing Pac-12 schools and have a 19-22-1 all-time record against them. With a tough 11-game Pac-12 schedule, Utah won't have to play a difficult, front-loaded non-league schedule to try to improve its RPI ranking and can now work up to the league schedule.

Challenge: Over the last five years, the gap between the Pac-10 and MWC has widened and it might take the Utes a couple of years to play on an equal basis with most of the league's teams.

7: The annual number of NCAA berths Pac-10 soccer teams have averaged over the past three years. Also, fellow Pac-12 newcomer Colorado has made the NCAA tournament 6 of the past 8 years.

Rich Manning says: "If you look at the history of our program and the talent we have and the great talent that is interested in our program, I have no question we'll do well. I'm salivating at this opportunity."

Leaders of the Pac: Stanford has reached the NCAA finals two years in a row and UCLA made seven straight College Cups (Final Four) from 2003-2009.

Bottom line: Although the Utes are coming off a poor, injury-plagued season, the gap between them and the Pac-10 schools won't be as great as some other sports at Utah. The Pac-12 is expected to get eight NCAA Tournament berths this year and it wouldn't be surprising if Utah grabbed one of them.Utah women's soccer

Award type: Equivalency

NCAA scholarship max limit: 14

Utah actual award, 2010-11: 13.69

Pac-12 women's soccer programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California,

Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington,

Washington State.

Utah women's soccer

Award type: Equivalency

NCAA scholarship max limit: 14

Utah actual award, 2010-11: 13.69

Pac-12 women's soccer programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California,

Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington,

Washington State.Utah soccer at a glance

Advantage: The Utes are used to playing Pac-12 schools and have a 19-22-1 all-time record against them. With a tough 11-game Pac-12 schedule, Utah won't have to play a difficult, front-loaded non-league schedule to try to improve its RPI ranking and can now work up to the league schedule.

Challenge: Over the last five years, the gap between the Pac-10 and MWC has widened and it might take the Utes a couple of years to play on an equal basis with most of the league's teams.

7: The annual number of NCAA berths Pac-10 soccer teams have averaged over the past three years. Also, fellow Pac-12 newcomer Colorado has made the NCAA tournament 6 of the past 8 years.

Rich Manning says: "If you look at the history of our program and the talent we have and the great talent that is interested in our program, I have no question we'll do well. I'm salivating at this opportunity."

Leaders of the Pac: Stanford has reached the NCAA finals two years in a row and UCLA made seven straight College Cups (Final Four) from 2003-2009.

Bottom line: Although the Utes are coming off a poor, injury-plagued season, the gap between them and the Pac-10 schools won't be as great as some other sports at Utah. The Pac-12 is expected to get eight NCAA Tournament berths this year and it wouldn't be surprising if Utah grabbed one of them.